Most people in Africa access the web through a mobile phone
The continent's broadband growth is increasing at twice the global average rate
A host of mobile-based start-ups have exploited this by offering services from banking to farming
Editor’s Note: Each week, Africa View explores the trends, figures and initiatives shaping Africa. From education and energy to technology and innovation, it showcases topics and influential sectors driving countries on the continent.
If when you say internet, you think of a computer, then you probably don’t live in an African country.
The continent has some of the lowest fixed-broadband subscription rates in the world, with most people’s first encounter with the world wide web coming via their mobile phones.
Around 70% of mobile users browse the internet on their devices, and Africa’s mobile broadband growth is increasing at a rate of more than 40% – twice the global average.
This is largely due to the weak land-line infrastructure on the continent, which makes connecting through a desktop computer difficult. Low-cost or second-hand feature phones are also much cheaper to buy, which has made them ubiquitous across the continent, and it is estimated that by 2016 Africa will have a billion mobile phones. Feature devices also stay charged for longer – a crucial requirement in a part of the world where the supply of power is irregular and unreliable.
“More people in Africa have a mobile phone than access to electricity,” according to Toby Shapshak, editor and publisher of Stuff Magazine. “That means, for a phone to be functional, it needs decent battery life. These feature phones have anywhere up to a week.”
This has created a unique environment where mobile technology have been adapted for a wide range of usages, from lowering information barriers and improving access to financial and health services to boosting commerce and bringing people together.
Mobile money transfer systems such as M-Pesa, which launched in Nairobi in 2007, allow customers to send cash to remote areas with the touch of a button. The service has nearly 17 million active customers who make more than US$1.1 billion worth of transactions per month.
And if you’re worried that the medicines you bought might be counterfeit, you can check their authenticity through mPedigree, a mobile application which gives you a “genuine” or “fake” answer after you text the drug’s serial number.
Mobile phone technology has also moved into sectors outside the traditional tech remit. Farmers can access information about the weather, real-time market prices, and new farming tips though mobile apps like Farmerline and Esoko.
Mobiles have even infiltrated arts and culture, with Badilisha Poetry X-Change, the world’s largest archive of African poets featured on a mobile first website.
The spread of internet-enabled cell phones has also had an effect on the fiber of society: “The impact of Internet access via mobile devices on the continent has been a game changer on the continent,” according to Nmachi Jidenma, manager of mobile disruptors at PayPal. “Access to social networks has given youth a platform for self-expression and civic participation in ways that are having real impact on elections, governance and accountability.”